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“The Death of Actaeon” by Titian

Actaeon

“The Death of Actaeon” by Titian

“The Death of Actaeon” by Titian depicts the last stage of the mythological story in which the young hunter named Actaeon, who unwittingly stumbles on the naked goddess Diana who is enjoying a bath in a spring. Diana is surprised to be caught during her bath in an exposed naked state by Actaeon and in response splashes water upon Actaeon, who as a mortal is transformed into a deer with antlers and flees in fear. This painting recounts the unfortunate fate of Actaeon, who after fleeing is tracked down by his hounds and killed because they failed to recognise their master. 

This painting is a sequel of Titian’s work “Diana and Actaeon” showing the story’s tragic conclusion, which follows the Roman poet Ovid’s account in the Metamorphoses. There has been debate as to whether this painting is finished or not, as the painting does not have his signature, which perhaps indicates it is not completed. There is no arrow in the picture, nor is the bowstring visible. The goddess does not have her usual attribute of the small crescent in her hair that Titian used in other depictions. Titian seems never to have completed this painting to his satisfaction, and the picture remained in his studio until his death in 1576. Why did Titian have difficulties in completing this painting? Did he see himself as Actaeon? Titian had painted many female naked figures during his career.

The story of Diana and Actaeon became popular in the Renaissance and had been depicted by many artists. Ovid’s account does not include Diana herself pursuing Actaeon, or shooting at him. There were ancient reliefs and engraved gems showing either Diana hunting with dogs, or Actaeon being attacked by his dogs, and a few Renaissance works, but the subject in this painting was rare, before this Titian depiction.

Diana

Diana, in Roman mythology, was the goddess of the hunt, the moon, and nature and she had similar attributes to the Greek goddess Artemis. Oak groves and deer were especially sacred to her. Diana was one of the three maiden goddesses, along with Minerva and Vesta, who swore never to marry. Since the Renaissance, the myth of Diana has often been represented in the visual and literary arts.

Titian

The artist of this masterpiece, Titian was the most important painter of the 16th-century Venetian school. So much so that his contemporaries recognised him as one of the most accomplished painters, adept with portraits, landscape, and mythological and religious subjects. His application and use of colour, his vivid, luminous tints, his brushwork and subtlety of tone had a profound influence on Western art.

Exploring Titian

Reflections

  • Why was this so story popular during the Renaissance?
  • Why did Diana become such a favourite subject in the visual arts?
  • Why did Titian have difficulties in completing this painting? Did he see himself as Actaeon?

Explore the National Gallery

The Death of Actaeon

  • Title:             The Death of Actaeon
  • Artist:           Titian
  • Created:       1559-75
  • Media:          Oil paint
  • Dimensions: 178.4 cm x 198.1 cm (77.9 in)
  • Museum:      The National Gallery, London

Titian

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“It is not bright colours but good drawing that makes figures beautiful.”
– Titian

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Photo Credit:1)Titian [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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